Some notes on what LIS can learn from fan information behaviour

A couple of years back I gave a talk during #citymash entitled ‘NSFW: Fanfiction in the Library’, which was more or less an exploratory dive into how LIS can learn from fan information behaviour. (My original blog post on this event can be found here. You can also read the handout for the talk here).

Recently I found the notes I took from audience members during the talk, which were very helpful in helping formulate some of the theories later developed in my PhD thesis.  I’ve decided to do a little rundown of these notes (plus some discussion), which might be of interest, particularly to those who are thinking about what LIS can learn from fan information practices (and that of other participatory cultures.  Trust me – there is lots we can learn!).

So here we are – some comments from the audience

-oOo-

Fan information behaviour is fun.

The implication being that information behaviour in professional/academic/research/mundane contexts is not. Is this strictly true? If not, how can LIS make their systems fun for users to engage with? If yes, then what can we do to harness the pleasurable aspects of information behaviour that we are not already tapping into?

Tagging only makes sense to me.

One audience member thought that the only aspect of fan information behaviour that could be successfully incorporated into LIS systems is tagging.  But free tagging has already been instituted on many online library, museum and gallery catalogues, with only limited success, and hasn’t seen the wide-ranging and innovative usage that manifests on platforms such as AO3 and Tumblr.

You need a feeling of community for it to work.

Users need to have a strong sense of community; they need to be invested in the institution and/or the thing that it stands for.  Otherwise they will not be motivated to contribute to participatory classification activities (such as free tagging), or other initiatives that may be beneficial to institutional information work.  Certain groups, such as scholars, amateur genealogists, historians, movie enthusiasts etc., already have the requisite investment in a certain domain – however the degree of their involvement in participatory information behaviour is variable, and whilst similar in some ways to fan information behaviour, is arguably less intense.

Publicity and discussion is needed to foster a sense of community and investment in collections.

Are there people who already have that vested interest in your collection? Who are passionate about it? Find those people and engage with them.  What do they have to offer?  What do they think are the best ways to publicise your collection and engage others with them?

AO3 is creating a collection of deleted fanworks.

Fans are very interested in preserving their cultural history and the artefacts associated with it.  They are able to think outside the box and come together on a voluntary basis to preserve their fannish history.  Maybe passionate users of memory institution collections have ideas about how works they are interested in can best be preserved, curated and showcased.

There’s a similarity between big name scholars and big name fans (BNF).  The cliques that form around BNF and their influence can be toxic to the community.  There can be gaming the system, such as getting fans of the BNF to increase hits, reviews and positive spin on their work.

The comment implies that scholarship suffers from the same sorts of problems, such as skewed metrics and citation practices.

Library systems could be more user-focused.

There is a trend towards this, with more ‘interactive’ functions, such as scrolling book covers, free-tagging affordances, and the ability to create reading lists – are these initiatives successful, and do they engender passionate, fan-like information behaviour?  How can we make using the library catalogue ‘pleasurable’?

Friction is an issue – there is less friction for fans when using their information systems.

There is plenty of friction in fan information systems, but because fans are invested in the system (and sometimes because they actually own, develop or maintain the system), they are more motivated to create workarounds or improve that system.  Perhaps information professionals can engage with users about friction points and how to overcome them.

MARC cataloguing – can it be used to catalogue fanworks?

MARC cataloguing standards are not readily transparent and there is a learning curve to using and understanding them.  Most people outside of LIS have not heard of MARC or know of its purpose.  Similarly, standards such as the Library of Congress subject headings are not granular enough to cater for the specificities of fandom. Therefore fans do not generally use these standards to catalogue their works – indeed, most fanworks have no standard bibliographical data applied to them.  Is there a way that those standards can be mapped onto the cataloguing standards that have already been developed by the fan community?

Fan-tagging type systems already exist for ‘normal’ books.

These can be seen in many OPACs or online catalogues, although usage appears to be low.  The tagging system on LibraryThing is much more widely used and successful, as the LibraryThing community has a vested interested in their own libraries (and, perhaps, books themselves). They can also contribute obscure information about books, including different editions, acquisition information, and even upload their own covers for books.  There is a sense that they are contributing to the catalogue, and enriching the experiences of other LibraryThing users.  This is not apparent in standard online catalogues.

-oOo-

So that’s it for the discussions that came out of my talk.  Lots to think about. One thing that stuck out to be as I was going back on these was the point that I copied out in bold in the previous paragraph – “enriching the experiences of other LibraryThing users”. I believe this is of primary importance in building participatory information behaviours and systems.  It isn’t merely a case of being personally invested in the collection, but also in the community around it.  It is about improving, enriching, and sharing accurate and interesting knowledge about the collection with other users who share your passion.  It is about contributing value to a community.  It is even about sharing your own knowledge capital – I know a really rare fact about a limited edition of this book, and I want everyone else to know I know. I can reference a really obscure comic issue/TV episode in my fanfiction, and I’m going to tag it so everyone else can know I know about it.  I live in the road where this photo in this archive was taken, so I’m going to share my personal knowledge of this road to enrich peoples’ knowledge of this place with my own.). Tapping into what users have to offer the entire community, and making them feel that their knowledge is valuable, is key to concepts of participatory engagement in information work.

 

 

 

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List of UK (fan)zine collections

This list is intended to be a resource to other UK (fan)zine researchers.  It is by no means exhaustive and is a work-in-progress. Please contact me via the comment box below if there are any that are missing and that need to be added. It was originally drawn up for a paper/presentation, ‘Fan Fiction in the Library‘, delivered at the Fan Studies Network Conference 2016 (paper currently in press) with Lyn Robinson.

Major thanks to the zine collections list at http://zines.barnard.edu/zine-libraries#uk for the bulk of these links!

 

  • 56a Zine Library, London, England. Political, feminist, queer, activist zines as well as perzines and punk zines.
  • British Library, London, England. Counterculture zines, women’s zines, riot grrrl zines,music zines, football zines, alternative comics.
  • Canny Little Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Punk zines, feminist zines, queer zines, perzines, political zines, and pamphlets.
  • Cowley Club, Brighton, England. Lending library with materials relating to libertarian, ecological, and feminist books, pamphlets, and zines.
  • Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow, Scotland. Feminist, perzines, music, punk, political, comics included in the collection. The collection dates from the early 90s to present day.
  • London College of Communication, London, England. Art zines as well as music/personal/political zines, covering art, music, photography, politics and personal stories; mostly 21st century zines, oldest 1970’s, currently being added to). Also at https://www.facebook.com/LCCLibraryZineCollection
  • Manchester LGBT Zine Library, Manchester, England. Zines housed in the Joyce Layland LGBT Centre
  • Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England. Was slated to open late 2016. No further news as yet. Currently taking donations.
  • Mobile Menstrual Zine Library, Sheffield, England. Reference only.
  • Poetry Library, London, England. Poetry zines, art zines, radical printing, fanzines, and perzines.
  • Salford Zine Library, Manchester, England. A self-publishing archive formed in January 2010 by Craig John Barr.
  • Stuart Hall Library, London, England. Cultural diversity, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, as well as personal/political/arts based zines.
  • Tate Library, London, England. Art zines (collage, illustration, and photography feature heavily), punk zines, fanzines, political and personal zines, comix, and poetry zines.
  • University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, England. The Public Zine Collection. Art zines, etc.
  • University of Liverpool Library special collections (includes fanzines in their science fiction collection).
  • University of Portsmouth/Zineopolis, Portsmouth, Hampshire. Zineopolis! Supports an arts, design & media illustration course
  • The Women’s Library, LSE, London, England.
  • York Zine Library, York, England. A small lending library of zines, indie press comics and DIY publications based at Travelling Man York.

 

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Review: Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom by Abigail De Kosnik

9780262034661Ten years ago Abigail De Kosnik introduced her concept of ‘archontic literature’, which describes fan texts (and indeed many other texts in the canon of Western literature) as additions to a global archive of cultural texts, an archive that writers draw upon to create their own works, thus expanding and enriching the archive that already exists (Derecho, 2006).  Works such as Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James build upon the ‘archive’ of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice narrative; Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead builds upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet; countless tales around the world build upon the archive of ancient folklore and mythology that have enthralled us across many eons.  As a student of Library and Information Science (LIS) – and an avid fanficcer – the idea of fan texts as literal and figurative documents in an ever-growing and ever-expanding archive of human culture immediately appealed to me.  The appeal grew to reinforce my opinion – or intuition – that LIS and fandom are intrinsically intertwined.  For if fanfiction is archontic literature, part of a grand cultural archive, who then are the archivists?  The answer, of course, is the fans themselves.

In Rogue Archives, De Kosnik updates the concept of ‘archontic literature’ to ‘archontic production’, crucially expanding it to include other forms of fanwork that do not involve creative writing, such as fanart, fanvids, fanfilms, podfic, cosplay, mods etc.  This expansion of the ‘archontic’ concept here is much more satisfying in that it brings in the entire range of fan production and allows it a space within the cultural archive.  Fanfiction is no longer given precedence but is simply a part of the sum of fandom’s archontic outputs.  Whilst the expansion of the term bolsters its theoretical implementation, it also brings it more in line, both conceptually and metaphorically, with actual archives, which of course are not merely repositories of the written word.

As far as I know, Rogue Archives is the only book that explicitly links LIS to fandom.  Within fan studies, there have been several articles that comment upon classification practices and information behaviour within fandom (e.g. Versaphile, 2011; Johnson, 2014; Thomas, 2016), although few draw explicitly upon the field of LIS and its methodologies to do so.  Likewise, the field of LIS has done little to engage with fan information practices, despite a growing interest in information behaviour within leisure contexts.  LIS literature on fan information behaviour is few and far between, though some does exist, e.g. Hart et al. (1999), Adams (2009), and Bullard (2014; 2016), albeit with limited impact.  What Rogue Archives does is unequivocally link the language of both disciplines (admittedly with a focus on the fan studies angle, which is understandable given the context of the book) for the first time.  From my perspective at least this is a welcome surprise, if only to reaffirm that I’m not in a club of one.

What is also fascinating about Rogue Archives is the fact that it also incorporates concepts from performance studies – an angle which the library school I’m studying at, #citylis, is also heavily interested in (we recently held a symposium, Documenting Performance, which brought together parties from both performance studies and LIS to discuss the ways in which we (can) document complex documents such as live performance).  De Kosnik’s book was an enlightening foray into the idea that fanworks sit squarely on the boundary between the documents of the traditional analogue archive, and the embodied, temporal works of the performance arts. There is an apparent dichotomy between what we call the archive and what De Kosnik and others call ‘repertoire’, as she explains:

“Repertoire” transmits knowledge through processes of embodied mimesis, one person imitating what another person does, while “archive” transmits knowledge through recording technologies […], one person decoding the knowledge that another person has encoded in fixed form. (p.54)

What Rogue Archives does is to break down this seeming dichotomy, by showing how fans use both traditional archival practices and repertoire in order to build the ‘rogue archives’ that fan archives encompass (i.e. they are universal, community-driven and alternative).  Whilst fan archives, such as FF.net and AO3, do seem to be like the usual digital archives on the surface, they reject many of the practices employed in traditional archives.  There is no formal collection policy; archivists are ‘techno-volunteers’ who learn their tasks through repertoire, through following the example of more experienced fans or mentors.  They are based on passionate practice rather than professional practice.  They represent active cultural memory rather than passive cultural memory.

What is important here is that popular culture is constantly moving, evolving.  Fanworks (which are now largely born-digital) are also constantly shifting and dynamic.  They are subject to the whims of their creator, constantly edited, abandoned, unfinished, remixed, reworked, deleted, lost.  Ephemeral, dynamic and rarely instantiated in a single, fixed form, fanworks share much in common with performance art and it is therefore difficult to submit them to the rigidity of formal archival process.  This affinity with complex documents leads fan archivists – ‘techno-volunteers’ as De Kosnik calls them – to effectively bridge the gap between the immovable, analogue world of the traditional archive, and the performative, non-reproducible world of repertoire.

De Kosnik is skeptical of what LIS can do for fandom.  As she notes herself, fans have been “dedicating themselves to digital cultural memory work [since] the early 1990s, just as the Internet and the World Wide Web were becoming integral to daily life” (p.12) – ironically, fans have been digital archivists a lot longer than digital archivists have, and have the corresponding expertise.  This is mirrored in the responses of some current LIS students I surveyed earlier this year for my ‘Fanfiction in the Library‘ paper, delivered at FSN2016 in June (Price & Robinson, 2016).  There was the idea that fans manage their own archives ‘just fine’ themselves.  There is also a wariness of LIS imposing itself on the practices fans have already developed in order to preserve their own cultures.  That is why I believe that any attempt at collaboration should involve the utmost respect and understanding on the part of LIS in preserving digital fan culture.  It is also why I believe that there is a lot LIS can learn from fans, which is why I am researching what I am – and which is what Rogue Archives proves in spades.  I am reminded of the Games Culture Summit earlier this year, where one of the speakers talked about her institution working with gaming fans on the best methods for archiving and preserving videogames.  I think this serves as an encouraging example of what can be achieved when fans and LIS professionals work together.  Pooling together our different but equally important expertise can help create a ‘best practice’ for the preservation and organisation of a growing type of complex and/or dynamic materials that LIS professionals are currently finding a real challenge to deal with.

At the very least, what Rogue Archives proves to LIS is that ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins, 2001) has been the breeding ground for many new, innovative and significant ways of preserving human culture, methods that it has taken little notice of in the past, but that may yet be able to inform the discipline’s future.

References

  • Adams, S. (2009). What games have to offer: information behavior and meaning-making in virtual play spaces. Library Trends [e-journal] 57 (4). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lib.0.0058
  • Bullard, J. (2014).  Values and negotiation in classification work. CSCW’14 Companion. Baltimore, USA, 15-19 February 2014 [online].  New York: ACM.  Available through: ACM Digital Library
  • Bullard, J. (2016). Motivating invisible contributions: framing volunteer classification design in a fanfiction repository. Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Supporting Group Work – GROUP ’16. New York, USA, 13-16 November 2016 [online].  New York: ACM.  Available through: ACM Digital Library
  • De Kosnik, A. (2016). Rogue archives: digital cultural memory and media fandom. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006).  Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction.  In: K. Hellekson & K. Busse (eds.), Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson: McFarland, Ch. 1.
  • Hart, C., et al. (1999). The bibliographical structure of fan information.  Collection Building [e-journal] 18 (2).  Available through: Emerald Insight
  • Johnson, S. F. (2014). Fan fiction metadata creation and utilization within fan fiction archives: three primary methods. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 17.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0578
  • Price, L., & Robinson, L. (2016). Fanfiction in the LibraryFan Studies Network Conference 2016, Norwich, Norfolk, UK, 25-26 June 2016.
  • Stebbins, R. A. (2001).  Serious leisure.  Society, [e-journal] 38 (4). Available through: Springer Link
  • Thomas, P. (2016). Wikipedia and participatory culture: Why fans edit. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 22.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0902
  • Versaphile (2011). Silence in the library: Archives and the preservation of fannish history. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 6.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.v6i0.277
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A (very) belated report on #FSN2016

They do say that if you want to write a blog post about an event you have to do it straight after, otherwise the glow soon fades.  I regret to say that in the case of the Fan Studies Network Conference 2016, I fell prey to what seems to be the bane of the blogosphere – you go to the event, you leave all jazzed and inspired, you get home and real life distracts you, and then the ship sails and it’s too late.

But they also say ‘better late than never’, and so here I am, writing my blog post on #FSN2016 after nearly 5 months of reflection.

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. ;)

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. 😉

What I will say first is how much FSN had grown even since 2015.  There were so many more people, and the atmosphere was buzzing – there was a general feeling of excitement in the air.  Of course, the buzz may have been something to with the fact that Henry Jenkins was giving the keynote; but in my case it probably also had something to do with the fact that I was presenting this time, along with my supervisor, Lyn Robinson, on the ‘Using the Archive’ panel.  Our presentation, “Fanfiction in the Library”, sought to give an overview of fanfiction in libraries within the UK.  This might seem an unusual area of research, as one is very unlikely to have ever seen fanfiction in a library before.  I feel that our interest was prompted by two main areas:

  • The growing evidence (as seen in my doctoral research) for fans as accomplished practitioners of information work, who build their own collections (both on and offline), who display highly sophisticated information behaviours, and who work collaboratively to create, share and maintain collections;
  • The growing interest in the fanwork as a cultural document worthy of collection, not merely by fans themselves, but by memory institutions (e.g. the expansion of fanzine collections within UK libraries).

Three different methods were used to glean an overview of fanfiction (and fandom) in libraries within the UK:

  1. A literature review of past and present research into the concept of fanworks as documents, or as parts of a wider collection;
  2. A study of the collection policies of 10 UK libraries, and whether the collection of fanworks or fanfiction comes under their remit (it doesn’t);
  3. A survey of current #citylis students and alumni, asking them about their current awareness of fanfiction and fandom, and whether fanfiction or fanworks should be collected in libraries and other memory institutions.

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    Fanfiction in the Library!

The intention was not to promote the collection of fanfiction in libraries across the UK per se; rather it was to begin a dialogue between the LIS and fan studies communities on the subject.  Whilst there seems to be a strong feeling amongst the relevant literature and most of the surveyed students in our study that fanfiction is culturally important and worth preserving, there is an equally strong feeling that collecting it is fraught with issues.  Both fans and librarians can agree that fanfiction is not like the ‘usual’, standard literature one might find on the shelves.  Most fanfiction nowadays is born digital, and is rarely instantiated in one fixed state – it can be constantly updated, edited, reworked, rehashed, removed, and sometimes just never even finished.  What if the author does not care for their work to be collected?  What about the perennially thorny issue of copyright?

These are just a few of the valid questions raised both by the #citylis students and the audience during our panel.  It was heartening to find that there actually was a dialogue to be had about this topic, and that many people in both the LIS and fan communities were interested in preserving fanworks – or at least in entertaining the idea.  During the research phase, I was particularly interested to find that a large proportion of the interviewed students were aware of fanfiction and were fans themselves – and that some of them read or wrote fanfiction, or had created their own fanfiction collections.  This indicates that there will be a sizeable percentage of both future and current library and information professionals who are willing to entertain the idea of collecting, curating and managing fanworks and other non-traditional media in more mainstream and/or professional bibliographical contexts. Likewise, the interest shown from the fan studies audience at #FSN2016 indicated a willingness to start thinking of ways in which fan culture and its many outputs can be preserved for future posterity – or indeed, whether it should be preserved at all.

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well ;)

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well 😉

I think that goal – the goal of starting a dialogue – was achieved in abundance during #FSN2016.  I’m not sure whether the dialogue has continued, but I’d like to see it do so.  At the very least, I feel that there is so much that LIS can learn from the collaborative, participatory, creative and generous model of information behaviour that fans show.  But do fans want to make a concerted effort to preserve their creative work, and should information professionals become involved in that process?  The contributions of volunteer librarians and other professionals, as well as passionate amateurs, on AO3 shows the greatness that these kinds of collaborations can achieve.  The recent publication of Abigail De Kosnik’s Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom has convinced me that this is a more timely moment than ever for us all to work on the cultural preservation of fandom.  I’d be happy to carry on the conversation with anyone else who’s interested. 🙂

A long overdue thanks to the amazing folks at #FSN2016 and the fan studies community for the fun and intellectually stimulating conference!  I had a whale of a time and yet again met some truly stellar people.  I just wish I’d had the time to meet more.  But then, I guess there’s always next year! 😉

 

The “Fanfiction in the Library” presentation is available here.  (The paper is currently being edited with a view to publication).

You can read Lyn Robinson’s blog post on #FSN2016 here.

The #FSN2016 programme and abstracts can be found here.

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A trip to the Infinite Library exhibition at the Colosseum, Rome

Every so often a happy coincidence will come the way of every lucky librarian.  Mine just happened to come last month, when, having booked a trip to Italy, I discovered that the Colosseum was hosting an exhibition on ancient libraries.  This double whammy of ‘relevant to my interests’ (ancient monuments + libraries) was enough to make me feel that somehow the clouds had temporarily parted on my life, and a mighty hand had pointed at me from the heavens, simultaneously declaring “Thou shalt have thy cake and eat it too.”

And so I managed to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, and visit “The Infinite Library: Sites of Knowledge in the Ancient World” exhibition at the same time.

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“The Infinite Library”

What was fortuitous about the whole thing was that I only managed to catch the exhibition by the skin of my teeth, it having been opened in March and closed on 5th October (yesterday, as it happens).  Set in the magnificent and awe-inspiring Colosseum itself (on the 2nd floor), it was the perfect backdrop for an exhibition about ancient libraries, writing and knowledge.  Its title – “The Infinite Library” (an allusion to “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges) – reminds us of the timelessness of the human quest to analyse, organise and disseminate knowledge.  We cannot say for sure when libraries truly began – but we can be certain that as soon as humanity began to analyse their surroundings, their world, and what they knew – they attempted to capture it and encapsulate it in some form (Rock paintings?  Cave art?).  By transporting us directly into the ancient world via a monumental and ruinous setting, the exhibition brought us that one step closer to a time that is far removed from our own, but that is, perhaps fundamentally as well as intellectually, closer than we might think.

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Rules of the library, ancient style.

For anyone interested in the history of the library, this exhibition (which was helpfully in both Italian and English) was a beautiful visual counterpart to the many books that have tackled this rich and vibrant subject (Libraries in the Ancient World, The Library at Night, Library: An Unquiet History and The Story of Libraries, to name but a few).  Its visual immediacy helped to put flesh on the bones of these texts, to bring the ancient and venerable into the periphery of our vision.  Through the exhibits the audience was able to see first hand what actually constituted a book or a document to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Books themselves were a late addition to the ancestral lineage of instantiated documents, and “The Infinite Library” was careful to remind us of this fact.  For the ancients, texts were inscriptions, funerary epitaphs, stele, ostracon and scrolls – actual reconstructions of Roman library shelves served to highlight the physical differences between what we might term a library today.  Roman book shelves were similar yet strangely unalike – more like niches than shelves, scrolls were stacked inside them horizontally and one could imagine that they weren’t as easily retrievable from their housings as sliding a book out might be.

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Fragments of a catalogue of Greek and Roman authors.

Holding the exhibition in Rome was fitting in more than one aspect – the Roman world was in itself the birthplace of what we might recognise as the public library (public libraries existed before in ancient Greece, though were restricted to scholars and the literati).  Some of these first public libraries were originally part of the bath houses, which may perhaps seem strange to us these days – is a book and bathwater ever a good mixture?  But for the Romans, the baths served as the ancient equivalent of the early modern coffee houses – a place where the populous could congregate, gossip, and conduct their business affairs.  In this respect, the library was perfectly situated to serve the community.

But it was the similarities to our own libraries of today that gave the visitor cause to smile.  Ancient librarians, it appears, had the same concerns our modern libraries do.  Amongst the exhibits were included some ancient rules of the library, no doubt exhorting users to silence or threatening reprimands for stealing from the collection; and the human drive to organise was represented, for example, in fragments of a catalogue listing Greek and Roman authors.  In this way the exhibition served to bridge the gap between the then and the now, to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present, and to highlight the ways in which the lives of librarians and information professionals has, in the most basic and fundamental ways, remained the same.

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A 16th century herbal depicting mandrakes.

What made the exhibition exceptional, however, was its focus not only on the library, but also on the cultural milieu that informed the growth of the library and literacy in the Roman period.  For example, it provided a valuable insight into the how the Romans read and wrote.  On display were writing implements – styluses, ink pots, tablets, and other writing paraphernalia that we would find strange to look at.  There were also helpful instructions on how to read a scroll, which also brought to mind just how cumbersome and time-consuming holding, rolling and unrolling one really is, and definitely spelled out to me just how much we should appreciate the invention of the book (or codex, as it was in antiquity)!  Last but not least, “The Infinite Library” featured several beautiful frescos reminiscent of the famous ‘couple from Pompeii’, which depicted their subjects as both writers and readers, one of which showed a very lovely young lady reading what appeared to be a love letter.  These gorgeous works of art give us a striking picture of how (wealthy) Romans wanted themselves to be seen – as literate and erudite.  The fact that so many of these portraits exist is testament to just how highly literacy was prized in the ancient world.

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A Roman writing tablet. Wax would be poured into the niches to serve as a writing surface, and would be replaced whenever it had been used up.

It is a shame that the exhibition is now closed, although English-speaking visitors might have found it difficult to access unless they, like myself, were heading to Rome on holiday.  Nevertheless, I’d recommend a similar exhibition to anyone who’s interested in librarianship, particular ancient libraries and the history of documents.  It would be lovely if the British Library could host a similar exhibition, as, in many ways, “The Infinite Library” was not just the story of books or art or culture, but the story of who we are.

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